Lessons learned: purdah

Earlier this year, in advance of the General Election of 2017 (June 8), I received purdah guidelines through the ESRC. Purdah (/ˈpɜːrdə/) being a concept I had never heard about before, I decided to investigate (admittedly, this does sound more exciting than it actually was…).

What is purdah?
Wiktionary lists 6 definitions for ‘purdah’, two of which concern British politics, three which concern Hindu or Muslim traditions and one that’s slightly different: [purdah is] “a striped cotton cloth which is used to make curtains”. As my research does not concern curtains, religious veils or religious gender seclusion, but instead applies to British politics, I should probably be looking at either one of the following two meanings:

  1. [purdah is] “the time between the announcement and holding of an election, during which any governmental activities that may be construed as potentially benefiting or promoting a specific political party or prospective candidate are halted or suspended.”. As such, another word for purdah is ‘pre-election period’.
  2. [purdah is] “the period after plans have been prepared but before the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s annual budget is announced, when he refrains from discussing any matters which have relevance for the forthcoming budget.

Clearly, as I received the purdah guidelines in relation to the upcoming snap General Election, it is the first definition that applies here.

But what does purdah entail, more specifically?
Purdah refers to the pre-election period. It is accompanied by a set of rules/guidelines as laid out in the Local Government Act. These rules apply to local government officers and civil servants (ca. 400,000 of them) and prescribe what they can and cannot do in the period leading up to an election. More specifically, it states that they cannot tell anyone who they’re going to vote for in the election. This is because their work is funded by public resources and these may not be used for party political purposes.

Thus, what are the consequences of purdah?
This means that the local government officers and civil servants have to be careful that not one of their activities questions their political impartiality, and this includes all their communication (even their tweets and posts on social media!). It follows that the communications of local government actors and civil servants will be restricted, in content and perhaps also in quantity. An example of how councilors are restricted is that whilst they can still tweet or blog, they “must not use council resources (such as council twitter accounts, email accounts, telephones etc) to do so” (Purdah: a short guide… p. 6). Knowing this, it makes sense that many of the Twitter accounts of UK MPs showed little to no activity between April and June 2016.

How does purdah apply to academic research?
When research is publically funded, it mustn’t seem like these public funds are being used to support a specific political party (or sway citizens to vote for a specific party).



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